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SAS Intros Free Tool for Creating and Sharing Non-Visual Digital Maps

Analytics company SAS has introduced a free browser extension that converts graphs and charts into sound, allowing users to create digital maps that can be explored using non-visual methods. Using the SAS Graphics Accelerator, students with visual impairments or blindness can access maps of their college campus, including points of interest such as intersections, bus stops, buildings and other landmarks, to help prepare for life on campus.

The locations of objects on the non-visual digital maps are conveyed using sound to signify distance, direction and orientation, according to a news announcement. Nearby objects are indicated using a high-pitch sound, while distant objects emit a low pitch. Cardinal directions are indicated using the left-right balance of the speakers and by changing the nature of the sound (clean vs. metallic). The maps are best navigated using headphones and a gamepad controller.

In a blog post, SAS Director of Accessibility Ed Summers further explained how the maps work:

"Users explore non-visual digital maps using a 'virtual' cane. They can swing their virtual cane clockwise or counter-clockwise. As the cane encounters an object within the map, the user hears the direction and distance of that object relative to their virtual location within the map. Users also hear the name of each object they detect with their virtual cane.

"Users can quickly change their virtual location within the map. For example, if a user detects an object of interest, they can press a key on their keyboard to move to the object. Users can also search the entire map for objects of interest and jump directly to any object.

"The combination of virtual location and virtual cane enables users to systematically explore a non-visual digital map. While doing so, they build a mental map of the objects and their relative position to each other."

SAS is working with the Perkins School for the Blind to create and maintain a library of the maps that currently includes maps from Brown University, Carnegie Mellon, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Johns Hopkins, North Carolina State, Texas Tech, UCLA, University of North Carolina, University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, among others. The maps are housed on Perkins' Paths to Technology website, and can also be posted on an individual school's website or shared via e-mail. SAS plans to grow the library by crowdsourcing map creation for other colleges and universities around the world. While anyone can contribute, map creators need to be familiar with the needs of people with visual impairments.

"This product was built by the blind for the blind," said Summers, who is visually impaired himself and led the creation of the SAS Graphics Accelerator. "With the ability to make charts and graphs consumable to people with blindness, geospatial data is a natural application for SAS Graphics Accelerator…. We started with college campuses to address a common need among young students with blindness. It's exciting to consider what the crowd will come up with, whether it's theme parks, city attractions or walking tours. We're just getting started."

About the Author

Rhea Kelly is editor in chief for Campus Technology, THE Journal, and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected].

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